She should know. As co-founder and director of the capital’s annual Zoo Art Fair, she has seen the event expand from its relatively humble beginnings as a satellite to Frieze in 2004 into what has been described by the Independent newspaper as 'Britain’s coolest art fair'. In 2007 Zoo moved from its founding premises in Regent’s Park into smart new premises in Piccadilly, where over 60 international galleries were showcased to great acclaim. As of 2008, it looks set to get bigger still. No mean feat for someone who, by her own admission, became a curator more by accident than design.
A one-time artist herself Rodriguez stopped her practice shortly after completing a Sculpture MA at the Royal College of Art in 1998. 'I’d wanted to be an artist from a really young age,' she reveals, 'and I was so determined about it I didn’t really think that I could do anything [else].' Having decided that she was never going to be the kind of artist she wanted to be ('the one thing I didn’t want to do was be a bad artist,' she notes with a laugh), Rodriguez gave up all contact with art and the art world for about two years before a series of temp jobs saw her posted to the publications department at the Royal Academy.
Having secured a full-time contract before the week was out Rodriguez was quickly drawn back into the art world. She met Max Wigram, co-curator of Apocalypse, the sequel to the groundbreaking Sensation exhibition of 1997, and, having decided that she wanted to 'get involved with the contemporary side of things' left the RA after about 18 months to assist Wigram, with whom she cut her curatorial teeth. Meeting with Zoo co-founder David Risley shortly after Rodriguez had left Wigram’s employ – 'not really knowing what to do except that I wanted to curate' – led to the launch of Zoo Art Fair just four and a half months later.
While she may now operate from the other side of the canvas, so to speak, Rodriguez feels no loss of creativity in having given up making art herself. 'I approach curating in the same way I would if I was thinking about putting together an artwork: by asking myself, "why should I put this with this?”' she explains. 'I see that as a creative process. None of those questions goes away when you’re organising an exhibition or curating an idea – you’re still fundamentally asking yourself, "why do I want this bunch of people to bump into this bunch of people?" or "why do I want to put this piece of art next to this one?" It’s a sort of macro process of the micro process that is making art.'
Despite the apparent distance between her studies and her current work, Rodriguez considers her time spent at the RCA as a useful – if somewhat elliptical – grounding for her future career. 'Having two years with the freedom to make whatever you want, think whatever you want, do whatever you want, that’s invaluable not just for curating, I think, but for life,' she asserts. 'That freedom forces you to take on responsibility for what you want to achieve.'
'That was invaluable, certainly, for all aspects of what I do now because nothing happens if I don’t get out there and make it happen.' And if there’s one thing Rodriguez knows how to do better than most, it’s make things happen.
"Having two years with the freedom to make whatever you want, think whatever you want, do whatever you want, that’s invaluable not just for curating, I think, but for life. That freedom forces you to take on responsibility for what you want to achieve."Soraya Rodriguez
MA Sculpture, 1996–8